Friday, 28 November 2014

The Spirit of 79

The Spirit of 79
It isn’t often an ordinary fan such as yours truly gets the chance to visit one of the plush lounges at Celtic Park so when Stephen  Murray invited me and many other Celtic fans along to the launch of his book ‘Ten Men Won The League’ this week I was more than happy to oblige. It’s always nice walking in the front doors of Celtic Park and heading upstairs past the statues, photographs and artwork which map out the history of our grand old team. An added bonus to the evening in the Jock Stein Lounge was the presence of three of the players who played such a pivotal role in that amazing 1978-79 season. Danny McGrain, rightly regarded as one of the finest players ever to wear the Hoops, graced us with his presence as did goalkeeper Peter Latchford and full back Joe Fillipi. It was pleasing to watch these guys take time to chat with fans to pose for photos and sign books. It was a lesson in humility to some of the modern highly paid players who seldom mix with ordinary supporters. The bond former Celtic players have with the Celtic supporters remains so strong because they are approachable and patient with them. The bond and indeed affection they have with each other was obvious too. I asked Peter Latchford if he remembered the game against Real Madrid in the Benabuea in 1980, he smiled and replied, ‘Indeed I do, that Ref was such a homer and probably still has a place in Marbella paid for by his bung from that game.’ Danny McGrain was his usual modest self, always quick to downplay his contribution and focus on the team but anyone who saw him play knew he was a real deal. Joe Philipi, a tidy full back who never gave less than 100% was one of those gentlemen who gave the impression that just playing for Celtic was a dream come true for him. To chat to such men was a real pleasure.

Joanna Doyle was also present and that was fitting given the role her dad Johnny played in that tumultuous season. Stephen related the story told to him by Davie Provan of how Johnny Doyle went out of his way to welcome Provan to Celtic Park despite the fact that Davie was likely to push Johnny out of the first team. Provan said that Johnny Doyle remarked to him on their first meeting… ‘I don’t care if I’m not in the team as long as Celtic is winning.’ Those are the words of a real Celtic man. Johnny of course is remembered in the context of that 1978-79 league campaign for foolishly being sent off in the deciding match with Rangers but his contribution throughout the season was considerable. That man would run through brick walls for Celtic and his place in the hearts of Celtic fans is assured. One can imagine his anguish sitting alone in the Celtic Park dressing room listening to the roars of the crowd and wondering if he had blown it for his team. A ball boy apparently rushed in at full time to tell him that Celtic had won 4-2. Johnny almost hugged him to death. A true Celt and a man we miss still.

Being of a certain vintage I have vivid memories of Celtic fighting their way from a seemingly impossible position that season to find themselves facing Rangers in a game on which everything hinged. Hollywood script writers couldn’t have come up with a scenario as exciting and climatic as that astonishing game at Celtic Park. The drama and passion of that famous night in May 1979 will be forever etched into the memory of all who witnessed it but as Stephen points out so well in his book it took a gargantuan effort by Celtic to claw their way back into contention and set up that thrilling finale. The long, snowy winter of 1978-79 saw Celtic without a game for 10 weeks. When spring returned they had to cram in games at such a rate that you felt sure they’d crack and lose form. They didn’t and Stephen traces the incredible consistency of the team in the last three months of the season which saw them rise like a phoenix and shoot up the league table. There were late winning goals, dramatic incidents and odd occurrences like Celtic beating St Mirren at Ibrox on a Friday night!

As you read the book you get a real sense that Stephen’s viewpoint on events comes from a fan’s perspective. This is a Celtic man, an east end Bhoy pouring his heart into his writing. There are fascinating interviews and quotes from players involved such as Mike Conroy and even former Rangers player Gordon Smith but the prose overflows with Stephen’s enthusiasm and affection for Celtic. It’s hard to capture and distil the drama and sheer excitement of what occurred at Celtic Park on a bright May evening 35 years ago but Stephen does it superbly. He captures the excitement of a game which seemed to have everything as it bubbled and boiled to an astonishing finale as well as the scenes of unbridled and fairly chaotic joy on the terraces, pitch and changing rooms.  His description of the injured Tommy Burns standing on top of the small wall at the front of the Director’s box belting out ‘You’ll never walk alone’ with tens of thousands of other Celts brought a tear to my eye. God how that man loved Celtic!

As a boy you hear tell from your older relatives of great Celtic games like Lisbon or the 7-1 game and wonder if you’ll see such times yourself. That league clinching victory against Rangers in May 1979 was simply stunning in its intensity, atmosphere and significance. It was all the more amazing because Celtic had a mid-season loss of form which would have killed off any other side’s hopes of being champions. Few gave thought Celtic could be champions that year as they languished in mid-table at Christmas 1978 but as the snow fell and continued to fall that winter a very different Celtic was being moulded by Manager Billy McNeil. This Celtic was organised, hungry and ready to defy the odds stacked against them. To their eternal credit, they refused to give up and through grit, skill and sheer will power fought their way to the title.

I’ve read a lot of Celtic books but few have filled with pride and reminded me of what our club and its supporters are capable of in the manner this one does. Any Celt who witnessed these events should read Stephen’s book and relive some quite astonishing times. For those of you too young to have seen these events unfold the book will give you a window into the recent history of our incredible club and demonstrate that that passion and commitment we see today is not a new invention. It’s been there since 1888. Mike Conroy, now coaching in Ireland recounts his emotions at full time by saying…

‘I practically jumped into the Jungle at the final whistle. I took off my boots and threw them into the Jungle. I was trying to get my strip off when Johannes Edvaldsson jumped on me and said, ‘Haw calm down, calm down.’ I was going to throw my jersey in but I’m glad now because I still have it. I’ve played in better Celtic teams than that one but I’ve never played in a team or been in a dressing room that had that spirit about it.’

Those of you lucky enough to see Celtic’s phoenix like rise from third bottom of the SPL to becoming Champions on that amazing evening will never forget it. The spirit of 79 was incredible and Stephen has managed to give a great account of how it developed and drove Celtic on to one of their most famous and unlikely victories. It makes me proud just thinking about it.


As we I headed back to the Garngad after that game in May 1979 we sang ourselves hoarse. Even as a skinny young lad I knew I’d seen a game we’d talk about for years. Celtic fans we passed joined our songs, hugged us and beamed with utter delight. The Garngad was buzzing when we got home. Flags hung out of windows and songs of victory echoed long into the night. I awoke the following morning with a smile on my face that took a week to fade. That’s the way it gets you when you let Celtic become a part of you. You live it, breathe it, love it. ‘We are the Champions’ we sang over and over that night and I’m happy to report I’ve sung it many times since.

God Bless the Celts and every last one of you who loves the green!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Beir abhaile ár marbh – Bring home our dead

Beir abhaile ár marbh – Bring home our dead

Those of you who watched Celtic in their unfamiliar black strip winning the cup against Hibs a couple of years back may well recall the fuss made by an ignorant group of online self-appointed vigilantes. It seems they misread the banner of the Achill Island CSC and in their myopic prejudice came up with ‘Islam CSC.’  It was a classic case of people with a pre-existing prejudice against all things Celtic being predisposed to accept lies about them all the more readily. Seeing the Achill Island CSC banner online recently got me thinking about the long links the people of the island and indeed wider County Mayo have with Scotland. 

One of the saddest episodes in this history occurred in the early autumn of 1937 when 10 seasonal workers from the island were killed in a bothy fire in Kirkintilloch, north of Glasgow. The ten young lads were aged 13-24 and all were natives of Achill Island and working 50 hours a week on the potato harvest in order to support their families back home. They were locked in a bothy at night which was little more than a cow shed when a still unexplained fire occurred. The Irish women in an adjoining building escaped as did two men lodging with them. It was 1am when the fire was first detected by a fellow worker and the Scottish foreman, John Mackie, who had the keys for the padlock, was awoken but by the time he had got to the bothy and opened the door, the building was engulfed in flames and the roof collapsing on the poor lads trapped inside. One has to question why the Irish workers were locked-in in the first place.

The tragedy stunned not only Achill Island, but the whole of Ireland and Scotland. Questions were asked in Parliament about the appalling conditions the ‘Tattie Howkers’ lived in when they were working the fields of Scotland. Indeed Parliament passed a law the following year to force employers to treat such migrant workers better. In the wake of the tragedy, collections were taken up to ensure the 10 lost souls had a decent burial but when news reached Achill island, a telegram was sent to Glasgow from a heartbroken community which read… ‘Beir abhaile ár marbh.’ (Bring home our dead) The Scottish-Irish community began collecting money so that this would be possible and to their credit Celtic FC led the way with a donation of 100 Guineas. (about £7000 in today’s money) The club also allowed collections among fans at a home game where a similar amount was raised. Various community and church groups in Scotland and Ireland also rallied around and when the ten boys and men were taken to the Broomielaw to meet the boat to Ireland some 10,000 people crowded the quay to see them off on their last journey across the Irish sea.

The boat was met in Dublin by thousands of others as the lost boys continued the long, sad journey home. When they reached Achill Island there was grief which the Irish Independent Newspaper described in the following lines…

Sorrow which was almost too sacred to describe was seen at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The ten coffins were laid on the catafalque before the High Altar, and around them were grouped the relatives of all the boys. They sobbed throughout the Mass and when they walked around the coffins at the end of the ceremony with wild cries of grief, they touched the coffins, fell across them, and kissed them.”

The cause of the fire in Kirkintilloch which killed the ten young Irish lads was never discovered. There were suspicions it wasn’t an accident and one woman came forward in 1982 to say that her husband had confessed to starting the fire many years before. The Police questioned him but met a wall of denial and had no proof to continue the investigation. Whatever the truth of the matter it was laudable that the decent people of Scotland and Ireland, of all faiths, joined together to help the families of those affected. Over £18,000 was raised (Almost £800,000 today) and this was eventually split and distributed to the families of the deceased and to the dozen or so survivors. Much as there has always been suspicion about the cause of the fire, we cannot, like those foolish people who misread the Achill island banner, jump to conclusions which suit our own prejudices. At the end of the day it is likely to remain a mystery.

Today a Celtic cross stands on Achill Island as a reminder of those poor boys who died so long ago. Achill Island is a small, tight knit community and everyone on the island would have known the young lads who perished. We can be thankful we live in kinder times when workers are treated better than the seasonal Irish labourers were in the past.
chuid eile i síocháin buachaillí
Rest in peace boys


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Going over old ground

Going over old ground

Much as I try to keep my writing focused on Celtic and issues around the club, it can’t be allowed to pass without comment that certain elements of the Scottish media are casually rewriting history. I realise that many of you will find more talk on this subject tiresome but the current cynical revisionism cannot pass without honest people saying 'enough!'. BBC Scotland didn’t cover itself in glory during the referendum campaign and like the rest of the corporation was seen as less than impartial at times. Its sports shows too have often raised the hackles of Celtic fans with some of their more ludicrous statements. This week during a discussion on the up-coming game between Hearts and The Rangers FC one reporter suggested that this was ‘the most important game since Rangers came out of administration.’  Those Celtic fans used to hearing such revisionist guff would have shaken then heads at the brazenness of this nonsense.   Rangers FC, the club founded in 1872 and incorporated in 1899 never came out of administration. It was liquidated. That is to say, it ceased to be in the same manner Third Lanark ceased to be. It was insolvent, in huge debt which it could not pay and went bust. Its remaining assets were sold off to vulture capitalists who gathered at the corpse to see what profits they could make.  Indeed Charles Green, the man who purchased the assets of the dead club, at the time said of Dave King...

"For a man who is the second largest shareholder in the go out publicly and recommend that the creditors vote down the CVA it seems to me quite unbelievable because what we're doing in that is saying the history, the tradition, everything that is great about this Club, is swept aside."

The refusal of HMRC to accept the old Rangers CVA (Creditors Voluntary Agreement) sealed the club’s fate. When one contrasts this with Hearts who recently had their CVA accepted by their main creditors and exited administration. They possess a legal certificate which proves this fact. Rangers FC (1872) do not because they never exited administration, they were liquidated. The BBC themselves said in 2012…

The Rangers Football Club PLC is a public limited company registered in Scotland (company number: SC004276) and was incorporated on 27 May, 1899. When the current company is officially liquidated, all of its corporate business history will come to an end. When this happened to Airdrieonians in 2002, all of the trophies, titles and records associated with the club were discontinued and a new club, Airdrie United FC, took over. Airdrieonians' official history ended in 2002, then Airdrie United's took over.”
You can argue all day about the spirit of the club or its essence but not its legal position. In Scots law the club and company cannot be separated and the death of Rangers is beyond dispute despite the understandable anguished denial from many. Jim Traynor, another who changed his tune once the new Rangers entity employed him said in 2012…
‘No matter how Charles Green tries to dress it up a newco equals a new club. When the CVA was thrown out Rangers as we know them died.’

I don’t write these words in order to rub the noses of long suffering Rangers fans in it. They are supporters like me who have enormous affection for their club. They must know that people like Richard Gough and Donald Findlay are not ‘Celtic minded’ and yet even they say the club they were involved with is no more.  Gough said…

‘’The really sickening thing about all of this is it was avoidable. All it would have taken for that was for someone to be honest. Pay your dues, give the tax man what he is owed. Instead Rangers died.’’

It is an insult to the creditors large and small to say otherwise. Some joke about a face painter owed £40 which went unpaid when the club died but other businesses from the local shopkeeper owed a few hundred pounds for newspapers to bigger concerns owed millions were seriously stung by Rangers reneging on their debts.

All of this going over old ground is tedious in the extreme but there is no way any fan of football should accept revisionism of the kind lazy or biased journalists spout. Let the new club work its way into the SPFL and take on Celtic but don’t insult our intelligence by saying it’s the same club as the one Celtic defeated 3-0 in the spring of 2012. Celtic will take on the new entity in the League cup semi-final in the New Year and no doubt the media will be full of talk of the ‘Old Firm’ resuming their rivalry but only one of the clubs involved has an unbroken history.

This isn’t point scoring or goading of Rangers or their supporters, rather it is a restating of the need for a more honest and agenda free media. A long time ago George Orwell said…

’Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

We should keep that in mind the next time the revisionists spout their nonsense.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Who do you think you are?

Who do you think you are?

I visited a nice snooker club recently in Glasgow for the first time in a few years and discovered that I remain pretty inept at the game. After a few frames a few of us sat in the bar and chatted. We were joined by a few friends of friends and I got chatting to a chap I’d never met before who thought it appropriate treat me to a diatribe on what ails the country. He got pretty red in the face as he talked about people he called, ‘Foreign fuckers who come here to sponge off the country.’ He gave various examples, most of which involved foul mouthed abuse of Muslims. I told him that most of the Muslims in the UK were born here and were law abiding British citizens. His reply was, ‘Aye, but they don’t join in our society. They don’t want to be British, they don’t have any loyalty to this country. I’d send the lot of them back to fuckin’ Helmand or wherever they come from.’ It seemed lost on him that the referendum showed that at least 45% of Scots don’t want to be British either. It remains sad that such ill-informed prejudice exists in pockets all over our country. The chap concerned gave examples which those of us who are children of the Irish diaspora would be familiar with: They’re stealing our jobs and houses, they’re work shy, dirty, disease carriers, etc. Stereotypes, exaggeration and a willingness to accept any negative story about the ‘outsiders’ were all on show. I took the first available opportunity to tactfully leave his company.

This last week, Celtic Park has also provided a valuable lesson in the varied and complicated nature of identity in these islands. We had the Scotland v Ireland European Qualifier which was played out to a noisy, partisan but largely good natured crowd. The green clad Irish supporters must have had more than a few of the home fans thinking of the Celtic connection as they boomed out ‘Just can’t get enough’ and ‘On the one road.’ The Irish fans seem settled and clear about who they are. While the tartan clad home fans belted out a high pitched version of ‘Flower of Scotland’ which contained the line… ‘And we can still rise now and be the nation again.’ Ironically, all of this occurred in a land where 55% voted not to become an independent nation again. As one Irish wag commented on twitter ‘We took on an Empire to win our freedom, you couldn’t even take on a pencil in a voting booth.’

This week the English came to town and the atmosphere was distinctly different from that we encountered when the Irish were here. Those of us who live in and around Glasgow could see the warm welcome many of their supporters were receiving in Rangers bars around the city. I drove past one such bar a couple of hours before the game to see a crowd of England fans milling around chanting ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ as passive yellow coated Police officers stood and watched. Why they felt they needed to chant such things at a game in Scotland is beyond me but it came as no surprise to hear such songs emanating from my TV as they game progressed. For what seemed like an eternity the away fans chanted ‘Fuck the IRA’ in that depressing monotone way they do such things. Again the Police did nothing and reported in the press the next morning that they had ‘No complaints about offensive chanting.’ One has to ask; does law breaking need to be reported before it’s dealt with? Hundreds of officers were on duty and obviously heard the chanting but chose to do nothing. When one compares this to the hounding of the Green Brigade for singing songs such as ‘The Roll of Honour’ then you have to ask if the law is being implemented impartially in this country? It would be churlish to suggest that the group of England supporters who indulged in this foul mouthed chanting were unaware of whose stadium the game took place in. The irony of a large poppy being stuck onto a sign at Celtic Park wasn’t lost on many Hoops fans who were well aware that the club gave £10,000 to this year’s Poppy Appeal while it has been reported that the cash strapped ‘Quintessentially British Club’ gave nothing.

The English press were in fairness scathing about the chanting from a section of the England support and linked it to the fact that they clearly knew they were playing in the home stadium of a club with Irish roots.  Paul Hayward in the Telegraph said…

‘Hundreds of England fans switched instead to a looping rendition of ‘F*** the IRA,” for 10 minutes at a time. Around that core chant, they sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and taunted the Scotland fans with: ‘British till you die, you’ll be British till you die.’ In Basel, for the Euro 2016 qualifier in September, they urged the Scots to vote yes in the independence referendum. Listening to some of England’s fans, many Scots who voted no may have wished they had ticked the other box.‘‘

The internet has undoubtedly aided the dissemination of ideas and allowed like-minded individuals to communicate with each other. Many of the bonds formed are positive and productive while others are not. Modern communications mean football fans all over the UK and Ireland can observe and comment on the behaviour of others. For some, pre-existing prejudices are reinforced as poor behaviour by supporters is magnified and disseminated widely on social media and fans forums. Thus the couple of unenlightened Celtic followers who attempted to talk over or sing during the minutes silence at Aberdeen is passed off as typical despite the fact that the 2000 other Celtic supporters at the game respected the silence impeccably. We had blogs unsympathetic to Celtic calling it a ‘new low’ despite the fact that video footage clearly shows that a local seagull was making more noise than the fans concerned. All of this is of no concern to those who see such events as yet more proof that their prejudice against all things Celtic is justified.
We may never get through to those Karl Marx once described the ‘lumpen-proletariat’ who are unlikely to become more aware of the real issues affecting their lives and the wider society. They remain locked into their sub culture of petty prejudice and seem unwilling or unable to embrace change. There has always been an intolerant minority in Scotland just as there is in every land. Ideas of ‘Britishness’ are, for some, becoming more important than their Scottish identity. The referendum on Scottish independence saw a coalescing of more extreme unionist/loyalist opinions into a mind-set which actually saw Scots burning the Scottish flag.

Ideas of who we think we are go to the very heart of any stable society. Each of us is rooted in our community and hopefully are comfortable about who we are.  There can be shared values of respect and tolerance which all groups in society adhere to no matter their ethnicity or political outlook. For some though, their petty prejudices mean that their ideas of patriotism are warped into a narrow and exclusive view which sees the ‘outsider’ as a threat. They have yet to learn that you can love your country without hating anyone else.




Saturday, 15 November 2014

Taking the rough with the smooth

Taking the rough with the smooth
This month marks the 20th anniversary of one of my most painful days as a Celtic fan. 1994-95 Season had been a difficult one for Celtic and playing our home games at Hampden hadn’t helped. It had been over 5 years since Joe Miller’s goal had beaten Rangers in the Scottish cup final to bring some success to the club. We had watched Rangers spend huge sums on players as Celtic floundered in their wake. We had watched the old board lead us to the edge of a financial abyss before Fergus McCann arrived to steady the ship. As Celtic Park was redeveloped we trooped off to Hampden for a year and it was a year full of frustrations and patchy form. The cups offered some hope to the forlorn Hoops supporters that another poor season could have a silver lining. The team battled through to the League Cup Final beating the likes of Aberdeen and Dundee United on the way. All that stood between them and a long overdue trophy was Raith Rovers.  The team looked nervous but led 2-1 with less than five minutes to go at a packed and frantic Ibrox. Then a routine shot on the Celtic goal was parried by keeper Marshall to the onrushing Gordon Dalziel who headed it home. It was a stunning blow and the team looked as shocked as the fans. Extra-time came and went without major incident and we then faced the dreaded penalty shoot-out. Fate decreed that Paul McStay, Celtic best player in a difficult era, would miss the vital kick and Celtic tumbled to a hurtful and humiliating defeat. Of course the team did assuage the fans’ pain that year by winning the Scottish cup and ending six barren years in the wilderness but that defeat to Raith still hurts some of the supporters.
Taking the rough with the smooth has always been a part of being a football fan and Celtic supporters have been remarkably faithful in the hard times. I discussed our most painful moments as Celtic fans with some friends recently and had my memory jogged on a few half-forgotten embarrassments. The 5-1 defeat to Neuchatel Xamax of Switzerland in the early 1990s was raised as was 5-1 drubbing at Dens Park in the 1980s. For the younger generation Scott McDonald’s late winner for Motherwell which cost Celtic the 2005 league title still rankled as did the 6-1 thrashing at the Nou Camp in more recent times. It has to be said though, that far superior teams to Celtic have been well beaten by Barcelona, who are on their day one of the great modern teams.
We all understand that it is in the nature of football to throw up shocks, surprises and occasional embarrassments. In some games an inspired opposition goal keeper or misfiring forwards can contribute to defeats and supporters can accept that if the team give 100%. On many occasions in Celtic’s history it was they who inflicted surprise defeats on more fancied teams. The English press were, with a few honourable exceptions, dismissive of Stein’s Celtic when they were paired with ‘invincible’ Leeds United in the 1970 European Cup Semi-Final.  Celtic not only beat Leeds in both ties, but completely outplayed and out-fought them. Similarly, when Celtic beat Barcelona in November 2012 it was a triumph for guts, fighting spirit and belief. This was the magnificent Barcelona side which had destroyed Manchester United at Wembley the year before to win the Champions League and they were beaten at Celtic Park on that memorable night by a goal scored by a teenager signed from Airdrie.
Football wouldn’t be football without that essential unpredictability. It has been argued that the Scottish League lacks unpredictability because of its utter domination by Celtic and Rangers since its inception in 1890. If you consider that the two Glasgow Clubs have won 99 of the 118 Scottish championships contested (around 80%) then it is hard to argue with that assertion.  Indeed this season marks 30 years since a team out-with the Glasgow duo won the title when Fergie’s Aberdeen triumphed in 1985. Monopoly is never good for any sport and the great current dilemma of Scottish football is how to create a more competitive league which sees other teams rise to the standard of Celtic rather than Celtic sink to their level. In long league campaigns the better sides usually rise to the top and in the Scottish context that is why the cups offer scope for shocks and surprises lacking in the league race. Who could have predicted results like Partick Thistle beating Stein’s Celtic 4-1 in the 1971 League cup final or Berwick Rangers knocking Glasgow Rangers out of the Scottish cup in 1967? In a one off match anything can happen on the day as we learned to our cost on that painful day 20 years ago when Raith Rovers had their day in the sun.
Such disappointments may hurt at the time but if they have one positive effect then that is that they make us cherish and enjoy the good days more. Consider the euphoria Celtic fans felt when the club finally won the title in 1998 after a decade of pain? The joy when Van Hooijdonk’s won the cup for Celtic in 1995 was certainly also magnified by the six years of frustration and pain. We all want the best for our Celtic and many an argument revolves around how we achieve this. We argue about players, managers, the board, the formation and a hundred other things but all of it is a sign of our commitment to the club and the fact that we care. This is our club, created and sustained by our community and our job as fans is to drive the team on and remind those in control of the club and indeed those who wear our colours that we won’t accept less than 100% commitment. If we get that then we’ll continue to take the rough with the smooth. As Fergus McCann once said…
‘Being a Celtic fan is never easy but it’s always worthwhile.’
So what were your highs and lows as a Celt?


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Band of Brothers


Band of Brothers
The cold rain seemed to seep down the back of John’s shirt as he trudged along Duke Street; head bowed against the blustery Glasgow wind. Winter could be a long haul in Scotland and it hit harder at those, like John, who walked everywhere. Since losing his job three years before he had seen his standard of living slowly decline. No one wanted to hire a man in his mid-50s and he resigned himself to probably never working again. Money was tight and he had been forced to make some hard decisions. The hardest of which was to choose between heating his small council flat adequately or renewing his Celtic season ticket. With his wife Margaret suffering from chronic bronchitis, it was the season ticket which went. It hurt him because he had followed the Celts for over 40 years but it was just too expensive. He’d have to make do with nursing a pint or two and watching games in the pub or listening to the radio. He was old enough to remember getting into Celtic Park for 80p; changed days indeed. As he neared the chemist where he was collecting his wife’s prescription, a passing car hit a puddle sending a wave of dirty, cold water across his already saturated trousers. He could feel the dampness in his shoes and sighed to himself, ‘C’mon God how about the winning lottery numbers this week eh?’ He stopped outside one of the many charity shops which had seemingly replaced the decent shops which once existed here but had lost the fight against the big shopping centres. In the window the young assistant was fitting a decent looking tweed jacket onto a faded mannequin. John watched her, unconsciously jingling the loose change in his pocket. ‘If that’s under a tenner I’m having it,’ he said to himself. The assistant pinned a white card onto the jacket which read, ‘£8.’ John moved fast, it would leave him skint but he recognised a bargain when he saw one. Besides, his lightweight jacket wasn’t keeping him warm or dry and there were a few months of winter to come. A few minutes later the tweed jacket was in a carrier bag under his arm.

He climbed the dark stairway to his small tenement flat and let himself in quietly. He could hear his wife’s wheezing as she slept in the back room. He slipped of his thin jacket and entered the chilly living room. He left the gas fire off, he’d put it on when his wife got up, no point increasing the bill heating the room just for him. He took the tweed jacket from the bag and tried it on. He could feel the jacket’s reassuring weight and its smooth lining. He smiled slightly. ‘Got a bargain there Johnny boy,’ he said to himself. He looked in the mirror above the fireplace and ran his hand down the front of the jacket, nodding contentedly. He took the jacket off and out of habit ran his hand quickly through the pockets. He knew the charity shop staff checked all the stuff handed in but you never know. Both side pockets and the inside breast pocket were empty. He looked at the label inside the collar and noticed that it had the initials ‘RS’ written in blue ink.  As he prepared to place it over the chair beside him, he felt something metallic. On closer examination it turned out to be a zip. The jacket had a half hidden pocket on the inside left hand side. ‘Be a good place for ma phone,’ John thought to himself. He gripped the zip between his thumb and index finger and eased it down. He slipped his fingers into the pocked, checking its size and suitability for his ancient Nokia. As his fingers reached the bottom of the pocket he felt something metallic. He withdrew it carefully and held it up in front of him. It was a key. He walked to the fireplace and located the cheap glasses he had recently bought at the Pound Shop. He studied the silver key carefully. It looked like the Yale key he used for the front door except it was a little longer. It had the words ‘Locker Number 22’ engraved onto one side while on the other was a double arrow logo he recognised as being from Network Rail who owned most of the big UK stations. It was the key from a locker at one of the stations. His curiosity was gnawing at him. He wasn’t a dishonest man but he’d really like to know if the key had a home. What if it was from Central Station here in Glasgow?

The following day the rain had eased off as the air turned colder.  John wore his newly acquired tweed jacket for the walk to the city centre. His new jacket certainly looked the part although his rather worn trousers and scruffy shoes hardly complemented it. He simply had to check out the lockers in central station. He entered the great cavern of the station and looked around. He soon spotted an unusual looking railway employee who sported a fine beard and a professorial air. ‘S’cuse me pal, are there lockers in the station?’ The man smiled at John, ‘They removed them a few years ago friend, still some in Queen Street I believe.’ John thanked him and headed for Queen Street station which was less than a mile away. He entered by the taxi rank and soon located a battery of shiny silver lockers stacked 3 high. Each had a number clearly displayed on the top of the aluminium door. Number 22 was in the centre of the middle row, the keyhole at eye level to John. He looked around a little nervously as if he were doing something wrong but steeled himself and tried the key in the lock. It slipped in with ease and he turned it to the left. For a moment he thought it didn’t fit until he realised that it turned to the right. There was a metallic click and the door opened slightly. He opened it fully and peered inside. A small black suitcase was inside and as the butterflies fluttered in his stomach, he lifted and turned to leave the station.

John McGuinness walked quickly down to George Square and sat on a bench facing the war memorial. One of the great stone lions guarding the memorial seemed to be watching him. He placed the small case onto his lap and slipped the two, silver catches off and slowly eased the lid open. In his mind it would be stuffed full of some criminal’s ill-gotten loot, God knows he could use a few grand, but the contents of the case were a little disappointing to him. There was a neatly folded, green cotton jumper which on closer inspection was pretty ancient. There was also a small box of the sort his wife kept earrings in. He opened this and saw a small rectangular medallion of some sort. It was gold in colour but a blue and red pattern in one corner made him think it was fairly worthless. He strained his eyes to read it and muttered, ‘should have brought yer specs Johnny boy.’ He closed the lid of the little box and replaced it before taking out the last item in the case which was a white envelope. This contained a single black and white photograph. John’s eyes widened as a searing realisation hit home. He dragged the faded green jumper out of the case again and unfolded it roughly scanning the tag on the inside at the collar. There in black ink were those initials again: ‘RS.’ He stuffed the items back into the case and tried to clear his mind. If these things were what he thought they were then he was holding a piece of history.

Two days later John was outside Celtic Park bright and early. The flag sellers were setting out their stalls and here and there the ubiquitous yellow coated stewards wandered around. The game was still three hours away and the only supporters about were those heading for the hospitality suites. John stood by the statue of Jimmy Johnstone, the small case in his hand, watching the lucky people wander up the stairs and into the front doors of Celtic Park. He was waiting for the right person and his wait wasn’t a long one. He saw the familiar figure approaching the front entrance of the stadium. He was older and the beard greyer than it was in his prime but it was still unmistakeably Danny McGrain. John approached him a little shyly, ‘S’cuse me Danny, can I take a minute of your time?’ The Celtic great smiled at him no doubt expecting to sign another autograph or pose for a photo, ‘No bother pal, what can I do for you?’ John quickly outlined his story as the bemused looking ex Celt listened in silence. When John had finished he handed the case to Danny and said, ‘So this belongs to Celtic, not me.’ The bearded McGrain took the case from John and said, ‘Listen Pal, come inside. I think you’d best tell this story to folk with more knowledge of these things than me.’ John hesitated for a moment but the Celtic man, sensing his nervousness, smiled encouragingly at him, ‘Come on, you’ll be fine.’ He followed Danny into the warmth of the stadium. He felt a little self-conscious as he headed up the stairway to the first floor. They walked a short distance along a green carpeted corridor. The walls on both sides of him were replete with photographs from Celtic’s greatest days and glanced at them as he passed... Lisbon, Seville, Larsson, Auld, Jock, Fallon and Dalglish.  Danny McGrain stopped at a light coloured door and knocked it gently, ‘You guys busy? There’s a chap here I think you should meet.’
John McGuinness looked at the familiar faces around the table; they needed no introductions. He felt as if all of this was a dream but it was all too real. Here he was telling his story to 6 of the surviving Lisbon Lions. He told it with the simple honesty he had learned at his mother’s knee. One of them opened the case and took out the green jumper nodding as he handed it round the group. He then took out the box and looked at the gold medal. ‘I always wondered what happened to Ronnie’s medal,’ he said.  He looked at the group, ‘That  jumper look authentic to you Tommy?’  A smiling Tommy Gemmell nodded, ‘I think this is the one he wore in Lisbon, Bertie. He kept it for years.’ They invited John to sit with them and ordered him some lunch.  For two hours they shared their memories of playing for and watching Celtic through the years. Laughter filled the room as they recalled incidents and games from their halcyon days. John was mesmerised by their stories but also by the warmth they clearly had for each other. They really were a band of brothers and for a couple of hours he was part of it too.
John McGuinness was invited to stay for the game that cold day but declined as he needed to get home to care for his wife. He jotted down his name and address before leaving the old friends to their memories and laughter. As he walked back along the corridor towards the stairway he felt a wave of emotion pass over him. ‘Jesus, John, did that just happen?’ He exited the stadium and noticed the crowds milling around outside were much bigger than before. As he walked down the Celtic way he glanced back at Celtic Park, God he missed going to the games. ‘Oh well,’ he smiled to himself, ‘You can never take today away from me.’ He headed up to the Gallowgate with a broad smile on his face.
A week after John had handed the case and its contents to Celtic, a letter dropped through his door. It was a thank you for his honesty and an invitation to go on the tour of the Celtic Museum. He needed no second invite and persuaded his wife to join him. They walked down to the stadium on a bright and cold Wednesday, Margaret puffing on her inhaler as they paused on the Celtic way. He had not yet told her about the case and its contents, nor his visit to Celtic Park.  The tour was magical for them. John saw the gleaming European cup standing proudly between the Inter and Celtic shirts. He listened to the guide who seemed to know everything about every cup and medal on display. Margaret, who was obviously having a great time asked about a green goalkeeper’s shirt on display in one of the glass cases. ‘Ah,’ said the man,’ that was donated by a kind Celtic fan after being lost for a long time.’ He seemed to smile at John, ‘So was the European Cup winner’s medal. They both belonged to Ronnie Simpson.’ The tour continued and for over two hours John was lost in Celtic. The stories, legends and great players of the past filled his mind as he listened and looked at 127 years of memorabilia. When it was over he smiled at Margaret, ‘That was great Mags, best day out we’ve had in years.’

As he was about to exit the stadium the tour guide called him, ‘Mr McGuinness, this is for you.’ John, a little surprised turned and took an envelope from the man. It crossed his mind that they were giving him back the picture of Ronnie Simpson he had found in the case. As he reached the statue of Brother Walfrid he opened the envelope, his curious wife looking on. It contained a card which read…
Thank you for your honesty in bringing Ronnie’s things back to where they belong. He was like a father to us all in those great days of the past. You could have made a lot of money selling that medal but like a true Celt you did the right thing. Enclosed is a small token of our gratitude. You’ll receive new ones every year from now on. God Bless.’
It was signed by Bertie Auld. John investigated the envelope further and saw that it contained two season tickets for Celtic Park. He looked Margaret, tears welling in his eyes. ‘I better fill you in on a few things,’ he said. She smiled at him with the affection she had always had for him, ‘What have you done now John?’


This short, fictional story is dedicated to the late John McGuinness.; life-long Celtic man and one of the good guys.  RIP and Hail Hail


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Standing up for what you believe in


Standing up for what you believe in
You see some odd sights now and then in a city like Glasgow. I recall some years back leaving Celtic Park on a dark, wet night after a victorious match against Rangers and seeing a rather drunk young man wandering around. Nothing unusual about that you might think but I did notice that he was wearing only one glove. My brother, more switched on than me on that occasion informed me that the glove, being red was no doubt worn by the young man so that he could hold it aloft in the away end to symbolise the red hand of Ulster. It was no doubt lost on him that the symbolic red hand goes back centuries before the plantation of Ulster and was in Elizabethan times a potent symbol of Irish resistance to English incursion. It occurs in ancient Celtic mythology where Lambraid Lahm Dhearg (Lambraid of the Red Hand) was a major figure in the Fenian cycle of the legends.  I wonder if that young man I saw that night would still attempt to wind up Celtic fans with his red glove if he knew all of that.

Symbols of course are one of the many ways human beings convey meaning to each other. They can be very potent as anyone who has ever worn a Celtic shirt can testify. The looks you receive range from encouraging smiles to naked hatred and everything in between. All of this from people who have never met you and make a judgement based on your choice of clothing. Such ‘pre-judging’ is of course the root of the word ‘prejudice.’ We are all guilty of it to a greater or lesser degree. I recently went horse riding with a group of children and forgot that essential item of equipment; my wellies. The only pair they had in my size was of the garish union jack coloured variety. I was not overjoyed at having to wear them and this speaks volumes of my own feelings about the flag of the political entity which I was born into. The flag in itself is of course a construct of English, Scottish and Irish flags and was intended to be a symbol of unity but all of my life I have associated it with narrow minded people who flaunt it as a symbol of exclusivity and triumphalism. The misuse of symbols such as the union flag and red hand can change their intended purpose and it would be remiss not to note that others have used the Irish tricolour in a similar manner.

It seems to be a facet of human psychology that many of us instinctively feel more comfortable among our own clan or group and this is perhaps a leftover from our hunter-gatherer past when there were very few people in the world. Today we mostly live in cities and are forced to interact with a bewildering variety of people from various cultures and while some see this as stimulating and interesting, others feel threatened by it. In countries such as the USA and UK there have been attempts to invent all-encompassing values and traits which people are encourage to adopt as signs that no matter what their ethnicity, they are proud citizens of the country. It hasn’t been a great success mostly because of the ham fisted and intolerant way it has been handled by politicians and the media.

You don’t have to look far to see the media agenda as it seeks to enforce conformity upon the population. At this time of year the ‘poppy debate’ resurfaces with tiresome regularity. In any so called democratic society, it is a matter of choice whether one wears a poppy or not. However the media still turns the spotlight onto public figures who exercise their right not to wear one. An example being Derry born footballer James McClean a young man with every reason to respectfully decline to wear a poppy given the actions of the British Army in his home town during the troubles. He wrote an open letter to the chairman of his club which explained his reasons in very eloquent terms…

‘’I wanted to write to you before talking about this face to face and explain my reasons for not wearing a poppy on my shirt for the game at Bolton.
I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars - many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those. I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one. I want to make that 100% clear .You must understand this. But the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me. For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different. Please understand, Mr Whelan, that when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history – even if like me you were born nearly 20 years after the event. It is just a part of who we are, ingrained into us from birth. 
Mr Whelan, for me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially - as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.

It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.
I am not a war monger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me in the past. I am a peaceful guy, I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs which I respect and ask for people to respect mine in return. Since last year, I am a father and I want my daughter to grow up in a peaceful world, like any parent. I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong. In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in.’’

James has been subjected to the usual brainless comments from the right wing press in the UK who fail to see that the ‘Freedoms’ they claim our forces fought for must surely include the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a poppy. He has also received abuse online and if the internet has a downside it is that it provides a platform for less enlightened folk to spout their nonsense with impunity.  Attempts to make people conform and think the same way are described as brainwashing in states such as North Korea but the west is just as adept at using the media to manipulate people.
American linguist and intellectual Noam Chomsky has long been a critic of what he sees as media propaganda in the USA and its attempts to manipulate the masses and create what he calls ‘manufactured consent’ for the policies of successive governments. He said of American mass media that it is…

"an effective and powerful ideological institution which carries out  a system-supportive propaganda function."

The goings on in the UK and Scottish media during the recent referendum campaign served to remind us that the media in this country is perfectly capable of manufacturing propaganda when its masters require it. We see it too in the ‘manufactured’ glorification of the military going on in the UK at the present time. Chomsky poured scorn on essentially meaningless phrases like ‘Support our troops’ common in the US media precisely because it distracted the average citizen from seeking the real reasons why our young people were being shipped to overseas battlefields. Those who question why the soldiers are being put in harm’s way can thus be portrayed as disloyal or even traitors. No one doubts the bravery of the average soldier but in any democracy the military and its masters must always be accountable for their actions to the people.  

James McClean does us all a favour when he reminds us of a basic pillar of any society which calls itself democratic and that is the right to follow your conscience. I hope to God that this time next year we are grown up enough as a society not to have to repeat this tiresome debate. It is of course all a matter of respecting each other’s views even when we don’t share them.  As a brave young man said…

 In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in.’’